Angelina Jolie fell in love with Cambodia 17 years ago, adopting son Maddox from an orphanage two years later. Now she is back directing a movie about the country’s painful past. The BBC’s Yalda Hakim went with her and, in a warm and emotional interview,
“My son changed my life”
Angelina Jolie was back in her beloved Cambodia with her six children for the world premiere of the film she had directed, First They Killed My Father.
My team and I arrived at the resort she was staying at in Siem Reap in north-western Cambodia. The place had been taken over by film crews, Netflix staff – who funded the project – and the Cambodian actors plus their families. As we set up, we were told, “Angie doesn’t want this to look very Hollywood and over-the-top with lighting etcetera; she wants it to be very relaxed and chilled out.”
My two cameramen began wandering around looking for a suitable location that wasn’t the typical TV interview with two chairs facing each other, lit beautifully. Finally Angie, as she is known to those close to her and how most Cambodians affectionately refer to her, stepped out to say hello. She really is as striking in reality as the movies and billboards we see her on. Barefoot and wearing a floor-length canary yellow silk-chiffon dress, her hair and make-up flawless.
“Hello, nice to meet you,” she said, giving me a firm handshake. “I’ll be with you in a second, and obviously I’m not going to wear this for our interview,” she joked.
Then off she went to film an advert to draw attention to the plight of Syrian refugees. I quickly realised how complex her life must be. “In another life, she would have been a human rights lawyer,” one of her aides told me. “She feels very strongly about her humanitarian work.” Once she’d finished her shoot, she disappeared again briefly, returning wearing what has become her signature look, a simple black slip dress, which showed off her many tattoos.
Angie is very much at home in Cambodia. Almost two decades ago, she swung through the temple ruins of Angkor Wat in Siem Riep as Lara Croft in the film Tomb Raider. It was then that she decided to adopt her son, Maddox Jolie-Pitt, now 15, from a Cambodian orphanage. When he suggested the time was right to start telling the story of his home country’s tragic history, the film got underway. Now, sitting crosslegged on the floor opposite me, in an open-sided room in the middle of the jungle, she talks about her new film, which has only Cambodian actors, is in the Khmer language and is her tribute to this nation’s suffering.
“Seventeen years ago, I came to this country and I fell in love with its people and learned its history, and in doing so learned, in my early 20s, how little I actually knew about the world. This country, for me, was my awakening. And my son changed my life. Becoming a Cambodian family changed my life.”
The film she has directed is based on the book, with the same name, about the true story of the brutality of the Communist rebels, the Khmer Rouge. The group marched into the capital, Phnom Penh, in April 1975.
Over the next four years, they drove its population out into the countryside, torturing, starving and executing all those perceived as class enemies and dumping them in mass graves. About two million people were killed out of a population of seven million.
“I hope this doesn’t bring up hatred; I hope this doesn’t bring up blame. I hope it brings out discussion. And I hope the people of this country are proud when they see it, because they see what they survived. And I think it sheds light on what it is to be Cambodian, and a lot of the beauty and love of the family,” Angelina says when I ask her why she wanted to tell this story.
Angelina is now known as much for her humanitarian and political work as she is for being one of the most famous actors in the world. She recently wrote an opinion piece in
The New York Times about the Trump administration’s ban on immigrants from six mainly Muslim countries. In it, she wrote about having a truly international family and how a nation’s refugee policy should be based on fact, not fear. She went on to say, “We shouldn’t be departing from our values.”
“What did you mean by that,” I ask. She smiles, pauses, then in a measured tone, responds. “It’s funny, isn’t it? Some questions seem so obvious, don’t they? What are your values? I value life, equally every single individual human life. I don’t separate people by race, colour or religion. If I do, it’s because I celebrate diversity in the world. But I certainly do not judge people, or hate or fear or think anyone deserves more or less based on religion, colour of skin or where they’re from. I think that is very small-minded thinking, very horrible, ignorant thinking.”
Is she worried about the Trump world view? “I think the American people are bigger than any president. I suppose I have faith in my country and in what it is founded on and the values we hold dear. I believe that many of the things that we’re hearing, that we feel, are based on a sense of spreading fear or hate or dividing people by race or judgement, [which] is un-American to me.”
Separating from Brad
When we first set out to do this interview, the agreement was to mainly discuss her project in Cambodia but that it would also be wide-ranging, including her humanitarian work, the upheaval globally with the rise of populism and, of course, her own personal situation. “She’s apprehensive about this interview,” her aides had said. I was surprised to hear this. Angelina has been in the limelight since she was a child. She is Hollywood royalty. Grew up in Beverly Hills. She fully understands what it means to be in the public eye and that in many ways her celebrity means her personal life is also very much public property. She had spent more than a decade with one of the most desirable men on the planet, Brad Pitt.
“Surely this issue is beneath the BBC,” they said. “It is!” I exclaimed. “But I have to ask the question.” Surely they realised I couldn’t not ask about the divorce and the infamous incident on the plane which led to the separation of Brangelina. It had made global headlines, and gossip magazines continue to speculate, writing piece after piece about the so-called insiders – who do not wish to be named – spilling the beans.
As much as she wants to keep the focus on the plight of the Cambodian people, it has been difficult to keep the spotlight off one of the most talked about break-ups in recent history. After all, they were a brand. In a time when we are increasingly cynical about celebrities, their relationships and the meaning of true love, Brangelina represented something magical and truly romantic. Their ever-growing brood from different corners of the planet intrigued the public even more. Then her double mastectomy followed by the removal of her ovaries – Brad standing by her side every step of the way. It seemed perfect.
Now, in her first interview since the separation, she knows I am going to ask about it. Twenty minutes into our conversation, we’ve discussed so many other issues, she seems comfortable and I feel it is a good time to ask the question millions are curious about. What actually happened? I try to be as thoughtful as possible, to somehow find a delicate way to link it to her film, which ultimately is about family, loss and grief.
“This is a sensitive issue. We know that an incident occurred which led to your separation. We also know you
“We’ve all been through a difficult time. My focus is my children.”
haven’t said anything about this. But would you like to say something?”
Even if she is a celebrity, as a woman, I imagine being asked such a personal question about the father of her children, would be very difficult.
“I don’t want to say very much, except to say it was a very difficult time and we are a family and we will always be a family, and we will get through this time and hopefully be a stronger family for it.”
“Can I ask how you’re coping,” I proceed. Holding back tears, she answers: “Many, many people find themselves in this situation. My whole family, we’ve all been through a difficult time. My focus is my children, our children… my focus is finding this way through and, as I said, we are… we are and for ever will be a family and so that is how I am coping. I am coping with finding a way through to make sure that this somehow makes us stronger and closer.”
Two months earlier, I had been told the interview with Angelina had been secured. In that time, I made a conscious effort not to read any tabloids referring to her divorce. I felt there was no point. Most of it was probably not true, I thought. Sitting with her now, I realise what an extraordinary person she truly is. She has reinvented herself before our very eyes for decades. I don’t feel the need to push any further and ask for details. She is right: people go through these sorts of separations every day. Hers has just been very public.
What I see now, though, is a strong woman, a mother, a humanitarian and someone wanting to again redefine who she is. I am curious to learn more about her life now and where she sees herself in the future. I ask her where she thinks she will be in five years.
Angelina takes a deep breath, “Will I have all teenagers?” We both laugh. “Yes, you’ll have all teenagers!”
“In five years time,” she says, “I would like to be travelling around the world visiting my children, hoping that they’re just happy and doing really interesting things, and I imagine in many different parts of the world, and I’ll be supporting them.
“There’s a time in your life, especially as a mother, that it’s really not your life any more. It is never your life the moment you have a child, it becomes them and it’s a beautiful feeling.”
So what’s the first thing that Angelina thinks about when she wakes up in the morning?
“I’m going through a moment when just everybody’s in my room. Two dogs, two hamsters and two children. Usually, I just wake up trying to figure out who’s going to get the dog out, who’s going to start the pancakes and did anyone brush their teeth.”
“Last question,” one of her aides yells out. Angelina looks at me and says, “It really has felt like I’ve been speaking to a girlfriend rather than with a journalist in an interview.” A nice way to end it.
The cameras are off and suddenly we are surrounded by her children. They’re eager to start cooking the bugs she has prepared for them. The first time she ate bugs was when she was filming Tomb Raider. It’s part of Cambodian culture and she and her children have embraced it. We walk over to the cooking station. Spiders, crickets and scorpions laid out for us with some vegetables and cooking oil. Twins Vivienne and Knox, eight, help us peel the crickets, and some of the Cambodian child actors join us. Angelina is in her element, her hair now in a ponytail, an apron wrapped around her waist. Shiloh, 10, tells me her mother isn’t the best chef in the world and she likes to do most of the cooking at home.
“Come on, sous-chef, try one of the spiders,” says Angelina, pointing the eight-legged creature in my face. As I put one of the fangs in my mouth, I look at her and say, “Nice, I can see why you’re into this.”
She then realises she’s forgotten something. “We’re spending the next couple of days together; I forgot to mention my upcoming project in Afghanistan, it would be really good to discuss it.”
“Sure,” I respond.
“Oh, and I really want to discuss Syrian children,” she adds, “so let’s do that, too!”
Yalda Hakim interviewed Angelina sitting cross-legged in the jungle.
FROM TOP LEFT: “Come on, try one of the spiders,” says Angelina. With son Maddox. Showing her cooking skills.